Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Succubus (Spain, 1968)

She loved the games men played with death, when death must win. As though the slain man’s blood and breath revived Faustine – and you. Lorna, are Faustine.

As a Jess Franco film, it is a given that Necronomicon (trailer) – as it was originally entitled before being re-titled Succubus for release in English-speaking countries – will engender either high praise or great verbal derision. Franco’s filmography over the generations, which veers from finally made high horror to senseless and badly made porn, tends to separate the men from the boys, the nay-sayers from the yay-sayers, the vegetarians from the meat-eaters, the Republicans from the Democrats.
In other words, his films decisively separate the masses – or at least the select few that watch more than one of his films. And Succubus – or Geträumte Sünden ("Dreamed Sins"), as it is entitled in German-speaking lands – is no exception. In today’s world, it is a love it or leave it film – as it may have been when it was originally released in 1968 at a time when foreign-tongued (western) Europe was still considered sexually decadent by the United States where (according to Daniel Harms and John Wisdom Gonce in their book The Necronomicon Files) an "American men’s magazine" described the Succubus as "a film that makes I am Curious Yellow (1967) look like a Walt Disney production".
A hyperbolic statement today, needless to say. Perhaps back then Succubus might have actually seemed so, but by today’s standards Succubus is rather tame, incredibly pretentious and much too caught up in its own conviction of being avant-garde... which doesn’t mean that it cannot still be enjoyed. It only means that to enjoy Succubus, the film should probably be watched neither too late at night nor after too many beers, for it is a less than invigorating or exceptionally fascinating film and can easily put a person to sleep (indeed, more than one of those watching it at a recent late-night screening did exactly that).
The script to the film is indeed credited to one Pier A. Caminnecci, who is also briefly on hand as the character Hermann and likewise functioned as the film’s producer, but according to The Necronomicon Files "Franco essentially used no script while shooting Necronomicon, simply making it up as he went along". A believable accusation, for the film's dreamy mixture of reality-as-a-dream and dream-as-reality does seem particularly disjointed, but then the narrative progression of the movie owes more to the logic of Luis Bunuel’s L’age d’or (1930) or Un chien andalou (1929) than traditional cinematic narrative.
Although originally entitled after H.P. Lovecraft’s legendary (non-existent) book Necronomicon, the film has no other connection to the famed writer’s fictional manual of the Black Arts. Instead, the film a dreamy and semi-sequential narrative of the sexual predilections and experiences of Lorna (Janine Reynaud), the star of a seamy S&M nightclub act that is on the tamer side of a Grand Guingol performance. Like a bisexual spider Lorna spins her web of seductivity and allure, enamoring her victims into her open arms before delivering the killer blow: first a man (Howard Vernon) with whom she plays a game of word association as they are in the process of getting down and dirty, and then the beautiful Bella Olga (Nathalie Nort), whose demise she hastens with the assistance of a roomful of somnambulant fashion manikins. By the end of the film, before being lead back into the castle where she has "always lived" by a man that could well be the devil personally, she also inadvertently kills her S&M co-stars and, finally, her conniving nightclub-managing lover-boy William (Jack Tayler).
The action moves from Portugal to Berlin and back to Portugal, and just what is real and what is not interweaves in a series of set pieces that vary in intention and effectiveness. As Lorna, Janine Reynaud, a former model, not only sports a pleasant 60s figure and some pleasantly pert puffies, but also looks fabulous in her Karl Lagerfeld outfits – as long as the camera doesn't get to close to her surprisingly ravished face. (In that sense she looks convincingly dissipated but fails, in close-up, to truly exude the supposed magnetic sexual allure that those around her continually feel.)
According to the website Movie House, Franco himself admits "that most people, including himself, don't understand it". The statement is pretty extreme, for the film can indeed be more-or-less deciphered, but the question is whether or not one should bother trying. In regards to surrealistic sexually transgressional cinema, Succubus might be an early and thus noteworthy example, but it is also one that has aged badly. Indeed, in regard to this particular genre of formerly avant-garde cinema, Jess Franco was far more successful five years later with his more linear but nonetheless equally oblique Virgin among the Living Dead (1973) which, oddly enough, hasn’t aged quite as badly.

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